Limestone bluffs rise sharply from the Mississippi River across Iowa's southeast corner. Little-traveled roads top wooded ridges that blaze with color as fall progresses. The river towns of Burlington and Fort Madison stand on the banks, serving as gateways to the region's rich heritage.
On a roughly 200-mile route that begins and ends at the river you'll travel inland, where the landscape flattens into gently rolling farmland. Roll your window down, and you'll probably hear the breeze rustling the rows of corn.
Farms surround the village of Swedesburg, which cherishes its Scandinavian heritage; and Bloomfield, where you might see horse-drawn Amish buggies around the courthouse square. The town anchors a large Amish settlement. The college town of Mount Pleasant honors the area's agricultural heritage with a museum complex and lively fall festival.
Along the Des Moines River not far from the Missouri line, you slip into a region of narrow county roads winding through wooded hills. The villages of Van Buren County recall the mid-1800s, when hundreds of steamboats churned into the thriving port towns of Keosauqua, Bentonsport and Bonaparte.
In those towns today, you can dine, stay overnight and shop in buildings more than 100 years old. Canoeing is a popular pastime on scenic stretches of the Des Moines River. In forested state parks along the riverbanks, visitors camp, fish and take quiet walks and bike rides. You're sure to want to linger even longer than a weekend in this land along the rivers.
Burlington swells across the bluffs that rise along Iowa's side of the Mississippi River. History credits German immigrants here with creating the city landmark of Snake Alley, one of the most crooked streets in the world. Constructed in the 19th century, the brick street has the same number of switchbacks as Lombard Street in San Francisco, but in half the space. It twists and steeply rises through a genteel old neighborhood with views of the downtown and riverfront.
Long before pioneers established a settlement here in 1832, the Sauk and Fox tribes chipped flint from the limestone bluffs for their arrowheads. In 1805, Zebulon Pike planted a U.S. flag at the site of present-day Crapo (pronounced CRAY-po) Park during his exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. The Stars and Stripes still fly on that site in the park at the southern edge of town, a great picnic spot at river's edge.
Stop at the Port of Burlington Welcome Center on the riverfront to pick up free brochures that direct you on self-guided walking and driving tours. You'll find historic buildings, graceful churches and grand homes downtown and along the streets of the nearby Heritage Hill neighborhood.
Recent history comes alive at Big Muddy's, a casual restaurant beside the river in a restored Rock Island Lines freight house. A mark on the wall indicates where the Mississippi rose 3 feet inside during the great flood of 1993.
Drive 24 miles north on State-99, the Great River Road, which hugs a wooded ridge above the river bottoms. You pass through the quiet towns of Kingston and Oakville. At the tiny community of Toolesboro, you can visit the Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark, which preserves conical Indian burial mounds dated from 100 B.C. to 200 A.D. Backtrack three miles to Oakville, and turn west on County-H22. West 6 miles, then continue west 22 miles on State-78, through the town of Morning Sun. South one mile on US-218 to Swedesburg.
The dignified brick Swedesburg Evangelical Lutheran Church dominates this tiny town of tidy homes, where most residents claim Swedish heritage. The Swedish-American Museum (open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 319-254-2317) chronicles the journey of immigrants to this corner of the Midwest. It also includes the town's original general store, stocked with 1900s merchandise. Visitors can shop for gifts or stop at the museum coffee shop for an almond pastry.
Drive nine miles south on US-218.
Gracious homes with wide front porches border tree-lined streets that lead from the town square. Nearby, stroll across the lawns on the campus of Iowa Wesleyan College, with its old and new brick buildings.
You can view scores of tools, antique tractors, steam traction engines and agricultural implements at the Midwest Old Threshers Heritage Museum (about a mile southeast of downtown). Each Labor Day weekend, the museum hosts the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion. Thousands come to marvel at the old-fashioned equipment that once tilled the land and harvested crops.
Drive 22 miles west on US-34.
The Maharishi University of Management, which opened here on the former campus of Parsons College in 1973, draws educators and students from around the world, lending a cosmopolitan air to this community. On the square, you can sample curry-flavored dishes at India Cafe or build your own sandwiches at the Entrée Cafe. Specialty shops sell clothing made from organic cotton, as well as traditional gifts and crafts. You'll also find spas specializing in nontraditional therapies and meditation.
In Central Park downtown, a statue of an early settler talking to a young boy in modern dress symbolizes Fairfield's blend of old and new. You can stroll or drive streets that are lined with Victorian-era homes. Take a short drive around the northern end of town to look at the golden domes of the Maharishi University, and see the Vedic architecture of many of the surrounding homes and businesses.
Drive 15 miles west on US-34, then six miles south on State-16.
The inspiration for one of the world's most famous - and parodied - paintings came from this farming community. Iowa-born artist Grant Wood visited here in 1930, and fell in love with a modest frame house and its Gothic windows.
Wood sketched the building, which he later used as a backdrop for his American Gothic painting of a stern-faced couple posing with a pitchfork. Signs lead to the state landmark, where you can pose for your version of the painting (be sure to frown for the camera).
Take time to look at the century-old Opera House, which is being renovated, and have a hearty breakfast or blue-plate-special lunch at the Jones Cafe.
Drive southwest two miles on County-J12, then southwest 10 miles on County-J15. Turn south on US-63, and drive seven miles.